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Racial Preferences in College Admissions: Time to Go

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Nothing the Supreme Court deals with is not political. But a case over affirmative action in college admissions has arrived at an especially political time. This is an election year. Working-class whites are considered swing voters, and the president running for re-election is both African-American and a beneficiary of the finest higher education our country offers. Come early fall, the Supreme Court will probably hear a case in which a white student, Abigail Fisher, claims that a race-conscious policy for admissions to the University of Texas violated her constitutional rights.

The case, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, centers on the 14th Amendment guaranteeing equal protection. A resident of Sugar Land, Texas, Fisher now attends Louisiana State University.

As for President Obama -- regardless of whether affirmative action served him, he clearly had the right stuff. Obama graduated from Harvard Law School magna cum laude and runs a highly competent presidency in tough economic times. If anything, he'd be an argument for affirmative action. Nonetheless, I hope the Supreme Court declares an end to race- and ethnicity-based preferences, and pushes the whole matter out of our lives.

If Republicans have a pulse, they'll be whipping up resentments among working-class whites hit hard by the new economy. In recent years, Democrats have wisely moved away from specifically helping "minorities" to helping the middle class. This case could breathe life into an old wedge issue Democrats thought was mostly over.

Twelve years ago, two liberal scholars produced an important book titled, "Why the White Working Class Still Matters: America's Forgotten Majority." Authors Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers urged Democrats to trade race-based programs for class-based ones. They held that economically depressed whites, a group that includes office and retail workers, saw their values of equality, fairness and reward for effort under attack in racial preferences. And politics aside, they had a point.

"It is very difficult intellectually," Teixeira and Rogers wrote, "to justify giving a break of hundreds of points on SAT scores to the daughter of upper-middle-class, highly educated blacks and giving nothing remotely similar to the daughter of poor white high school dropouts."

Since then, America's churning demographics have seen a flourishing black middle class and Latinos overtaking both whites and blacks in population growth. Asians, meanwhile, rapidly added to their numbers. The changes have been so fast that a 2003 Supreme Court decision seeking a middle ground on affirmative action may be obsolete.

In Grutter v. Bollinger, the justices ruled 5 to 4 that the University of Michigan Law School could not use a point system to favor "disadvantaged minorities" but could consider race in efforts to achieve diversity. Writing for the majority opinion, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor speculated that attention to race would no longer be necessary 25 years hence.

But are they necessary in today's multiracial society? A class-based approach -- giving preferences to students from low-income families -- would disproportionately help poor minorities while not discriminating against others from similar circumstances.

The University of Texas had already gone some of the distance with its 10 percent rule: The top 10 percent of grads in every high school are automatically admitted. That benefits students from struggling district schools. Fisher placed below the 10 percent at her high school, which put her into another pool of applicants for which race became a factor.

If today's more conservative Supreme Court throws out racial preferences, that could be to the good. O'Connor was right that they should be temporary. Only her timing may have been off. And though Democrats may deem the case's timing unfortunate, they too should want this issue in their past.



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See Other Commentaries by Froma Harrop.

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